Her name is practically non-existent in the annals of the American labor movement. She was described in the 1930s by the Chicago Police Department as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” She was a black, Native- and Mexican-American revolutionary anarchist labor activist from the late nineteenth and early 20th century America. For more than six and a half decades she has been relegated to obscurity from inclusion in the American labor movement, even though she fought against the injustices of poverty, exploitation of the poor, police brutality, racism, capitalism, government repression of dissent, homelessness, and the judicial murder condoned by the state/government her entire life.
If you are like most people you have never heard of Lucy Parsons. She was a force to be reckoned with in the early days of the labor movement.
The names of Eugene V. Debs (one of the founders of the International Labor Union, the Industrial Workers of the World [IWW], and five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the of the United States); Samuel Gompers (a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor [AFL, which later merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, AFL-CIO] and held the position as president of the organization for all but one year from 1886 until his death in 1924); John L. Lewis (autocratic president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) from 1920 to 1960, and the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations); Walter P. Ruether (a labor leader who made the United Automobile Workers a major force not only in the auto industry but also in the Democratic party in the mid 20th century), and James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa (American labor leader, gangster, fraudster and criminal convict, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s), are all well-known to many Americans. But, Lucy Parsons remains an unheralded prominent figure.
Born in Texas of enslaved parents of Black American, Native American and Mexican ancestry, she often went by the name of Lucy Gonzales. She was a trailblazer in radical theory and criticism. In historical perspective, she stands as one of the most original and radical thinkers and activists of her time. She rejected electoralism and began calling for the immediate destruction of the state and the destruction of all hierarchy. She was a self-proclaimed and unapologetic anarchist. She argued for the dissolution of the state and that the end of capitalism was necessary for the creation of an anti-racist society. She was an ardent feminist before such a word existed, she argued against extending the vote to women on the grounds that the state should be smashed, not accommodated, that the entire system should be torn down, gutted, obliterated. She was one of the founding members of the International Workers of the World in 1905. In addition to being an anarchist, she was a labor organizer, writer, editor, publisher and mesmerizing orator. She was a founder of the Chicago Working Women’s Union, an organized group of garment workers that called for equal pay for equal work (as well as an end to the 10-hour workday, and for the enactment of the 8-hour workday), and she even called for housewives to join in with the demand of wages for housework. Lucy was a member of the Knights of Labor, one of the first serious labor federations in the country, and a founding member of the International Working People’s Association, an early anarcho-syndicalist labor organization, founded on the principles of worker’s solidarity, direct action and worker’s self-management. Lucy was the author of groundbreaking essays such as “The Principles of Anarchism,” “Southern Lynchings,” and “To Tramps,” essays which offered a radically new take on organizing, violence, and direct action. She vehemently denounced racist violence (lynchings, savage burnings and torture, massive gang rapes) in the South and the exploitation of black Americans a decade before Ida B. Wells began her more well-known career. Finally, she launched a scathing critique of Western civilization (“Our Civilization: Is It Worth Saving?”) and its central institutions of hypocrisy and depravity and spoofed the logic of imperialism and its cultural chauvinism. In the paper The Alarm, the journal of the International Working People’s Association (IWPA) she addressed class and civilization [especially white Western “civilization”], and in her article, “A Christmas Story”, she attacked the racist and chauvinistic logic of imperialism and Manifest Destiny. Seventy five years before the Black Panthers, she urged armed self-defense against racist violence, but also called on black Americans to not limit themselves to self-defense.
It can certainly be said of Lucy Parsons that she was an exemplary figure who had an astonishing impact on the early days of the American labor movement.
She lived in Texas during Reconstruction of the 1870s. She would have seen unspeakable acts of brutality done against black Americans just a few years out of slavery. She could have heard of or witnessed many murders, rapes, beatings, mutilations, and various other crimes committed against black Americans by the Klan. In this environment she may have re-invented herself as a woman of Native American/Mexican ancestry. If so, considering the vicious racial climate she lived in, it would be understandable. And if so, this act would have been a form of self-preservation against the depravities and abombinations of virulent racist whites.
In this world, Lucy met Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier, who married Lucy after the Civil War and
became a believer in the social equality of the races. Their marriage (possibly legal, possible not, for at that time it was illegal for whites to marry black people) flew in the face of racist whites beliefs and under threats from racist whites, and they faced constant attacks and the threat of death. Albert himself was also threatened and attacked by the Klan (a bullet from an encounter with the Klan remained lodged in his body for the remainder of his life), as a leader in organizing black Americans. Certainly her marriage to Albert Parsons, a former Confederate soldier turned Radical Republican, was viewed as controversial. Shortly after their 1871 marriage, they left Waco, Texas, for Chicago, then a center of labor unrest and radical political movements. After Albert was blacklisted from the printing trade, Lucy supported the family as a dressmaker.
After moving to Chicago with her husband, Albert, in 1873, she began organizing workers. In 1873, Chicago was a city of misery for tens of thousands of immigrant workers brought in to be used as machines and cast aside. Lucy continued to work as a dressmaker to help support her family of herself, her husband, and their two children, when Albert was fired because of his involvement with the labor movement.
Members of the Chicago Citizens Association who conducted an investigation of how these immigrants lived were sickened by what they saw — children picking through the garbage and animal litter from the meatpacking plants, scrounging for things to sell. The children were often racked with illness. Fifty percent never reached age five. Families lived in tiny, dirty shacks without windows, floors or toilets. Houses built for six or seven often housed 30 or 40 people. There were thousands of hungry children unable to go to school because the family needed them to work.
The Chicago economic establishment was either uncaring or downright hostile. And they included the most prominent of the well-known robber barons.
Marshall Field (founder of Marshall Field and Company, the Chicago-based department stores, and because of his innovations in customer service, the quotes “Give the lady what she wants” and “The customer is always right” are attributed to Field); Phillip Armour (formed Armour and Company in 1867, which soon became the world’s largest food processing and chemical manufacturing enterprise, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Armour & Co. was the first company to produce canned meat and also one of the first to employ an “assembly-line” technique in its factories); his rival, Gustavus Swift (founder of the meat-packing empire Swift & Company); and George Pullman (best remembered as the inventor of the Pullman sleeping car, and for violently suppressing striking workers in the company town he created, Pullman, Chicago).
The relief fund for the poor, for instance, was taken over by Marshall Field. Field used it for his own business investments for rebuilding after the Chicago fire. Even the major daily newspaper aligned itself with the business tycoons of Chicago.
“When a tramp asks you for bread,” the Chicago Tribune advised, “put strychnine or arsenic on it and he will trouble you no more.”
Shortly thereafter, the Illinois National Guard was formed to suppress poor people who were organizing and striking for better working conditions. The despair and despondency crushed the citizens of Chicago. The seeds of rebellion had been nurtured from the economic, political and social violence that had been meted out to the Chicago community, and the people had had enough of the landed gentry and monied rich who ground them up like human fodder to serve the needs of the greedy and selfish rich. The people were beyond tired of being ground into the dust, and they began to fight back against those who looked upon them as a perpetual renewable source of exploitation by the haves of the world.
Into these volatile conditions, Lucy Parsons entered. Lucy and Albert both became members of the Socialist Labor Party (the oldest socialist political party in the United States that advocated Marxism and the second oldest socialist party in the world.) Albert became well-known in the Chicago labor movement. Both Lucy and Albert joined the Knights of Labor (the Knights demanded an end to child labor and convict labor, equal pay for women, and the cooperative employer-employee ownership of mines, factories, and other businesses). She began organizing workers and led thousands of them out on strike protesting poor working conditions, long hours and abuses of capitalism. Albert was soon a leader in organizing the poor. Lucy began to feel most at home with anarchism, and she soon became an ardent devotee to this most radical concept of the political and economic fight for justice:
“Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, ‘Freedom.’ Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.”
On May 3 1886, a strike at McCormick Harvest Works in Chicago became violent as police fired into a crowd of unarmed strikers. Many strikers were wounded, and four were killed. On May 4th, reacting to the events, radicals called a meeting in Haymarket Square to discuss the situation. The peaceful meeting was disrupted by police, and an unknown figure threw a bomb, killing one officer. One of the worst violations of US civil rights occured over the next few days, as police swept the town looking for any and all anarchists and radicals. Although he was not even at Haymarket Square that day, Albert was one of the eight men accused of the bombing and he was indicted and convicted for his alleged participation. Police Captain John Bonfield, a brutal thug, had led the charge on the gathering of workers and evidence suggests that he may have been involved in the bomb-throwing. Albert went into hiding until the first trial date, at which point he walked into court to turn himself in and sit with his comrades.
Albert Parsons was targeted for death by city leaders. After Albert turned himself in to the police, the trial proceeded. In October, 1887, after a lengthy trial wrought by injustices, Albert, along with seven other anarchists (Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, Samuel Fielden and George Engel) were declared guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Lingg killed himself in prison. Two others, Schwab and Fielden, were sentenced to life in prison, while Neebe got 15 years; and the other 4, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel, Haymarket martyrs, were hung.
As the Haymarket “trial” unfolded, Lucy Parsons’ belief in justice and in the necessity for revolution was confirmed. It seemed irrefutable that Chicago was incapable of showing justice for its working class.
Following the sentencing of the Haymarket 8, Lucy Parsons vigorously agitated in and out of the United States on behalf of Albert and the other martyred comrades. She delivered speeches constantly and sold thousands of copies of the final statements of the Haymarket martyrs everywhere she went. Word spread of the Haymarket affair and soon it had become international in scope, reaching and inspiring untold numbers of activists.
Primarily as a result of Lucy Parsons’ work the Haymarket martyrs became historic inspirations, creating a wave of anarchists worldwide. Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, Alexander Berkman and many other famous anarchists of history were moved, inspired and drawn to anarchism as a result of the Haymarket events. Labor activists the world over dedicated May 1st, May Day, on behalf of the Haymarket martyrs, and scores of radical labor activists and labor unions, including the Industrial Workers of the World, were inspired and moved to action by the tragedies of 1886. The Haymarket affair is one of the most important episodes in US labor and anarchist history.
The depth of Lucy’s courage was prodigeous. Lucy Parsons was undaunted by physical abuse by the police, undeterred by vile threats from thugs, or by malicious lies in the Chicago newspapers. She cried in despair over the dead body of her husband Albert in 1886.
After that, she never again cried publically.
After her husband’s death, Parsons continued revolutionary activism on behalf of workers, political prisoners, people of color, the homeless, and women. Lucy preached justice for the poor by way of revolution. She was forceful and convincing. The most powerful men in the city – Field, Armour, Pullman, etc. – made a concerted effort to silence her. For the next 50 years, in blatant disregard of her rights, she was arrested wherever she spoke.
On her tours, Lucy was met with enthusiastic crowds and intense state repression. Almost every city she visited attempted to block her from speaking, creating dramatic showdowns with local authorities and offering a prelude to the free-speech fights she would lead as one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World. Although she was arrested a handful of times, she persisted relentlessly, forging ahead with the help of loyal activists around the country.
Lucy Parsons led a Christmas Day march to 18th and Prairie Avenue where marchers showered the Field mansion with catcalls and rotten tomatoes. Soon after, Field moved his family to the North Shore — near the new Fort Sheridan which was built to protect the rich from the poor.
Neither city officials, police abuse, years of gnawing poverty and hunger nor blindness in her later years reduced Lucy Parsons’ enthusiasm for the cause or for the welfare of the workers.
Lucy were an astonishing woman. She and so many other anarchist and labor movement people lobbied for the 8-hour workday. For the abolition of slave wage conditions on the job. She pioneered the idea of the sit-down strike, relentlessly advocated sabotage as a tool in the class struggle, and argued forcefully for an all-inclusive union that made no distinction based on class, sex, or race and spoke out specifically for the rights of sex-workers. She vigorously opposed war and imperialism in the face of massive repression and the betrayal of many of her former colleagues during WWI.
Although Parsons was primarily a labor activist, she was also a staunch advocate of the rights of black Americans. She wrote numerous articles and pamphlets condemning racist attacks and killings. Her most significant piece being “The Negro: Let Him Leave Politics to the Politician and Prayer to the Preacher.” Published in The Alarm on April 3rd, 1886, the article was a response to the Iynching of thirteen black Americans in Corrollton, MS. In it, she claimed that blacks where only victimized because they were poor, and that racism would inevitably disappear with the destruction of capitalism.
In 1892 she published the short lived Freedom, which attacked Iynchings and black peonage. She also published a paper called The Liberator. In 1927 she was made a member of the National Committee of the International Labor Defense, a communist-led organization that defended labor activists and unjustly accused black Americans such as the Scottsboro Nine and Angelo Herndon.
Her later work included the defense of other anarchists and labor activists on trial for false charges, such as Sacco and Vanzetti and Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. The 1890’s witnessed the formation of a major rift between Lucy and others in the movement, especially Emma Goldman, over the more abstract arguments that anarchist papers carried at the time. Most of these anarchist debates pivoted around the issue of free love. Lucy believed that marriage and the family existed naturally in the human condition and criticized anarchist papers for carrying articles attacking these institutions. Her speeches against these topics, which she felt were far below the importance of directly working against capitalist oppression, alienated her from other anarchist leaders.
Lucy also wrote about the press, and how even in her own time, newspapers suppressed and manipulated information with their disinformation and misinformation in reporting incidents which occurred. Lucy wrote essays, “The Importance of a Press” and “Challenging the Lying Monopolistic Press” that alerted people that the fourth estate could be just as destructive to citizen’s interests as much as any robber baron, or government institution.
Her writings on sex and patriarchy, as well as her thoughts on race and racism, require closer reading, and certainly deserve greater attention.
In February, 1941, in one of her last major appearances, Lucy spoke at the International Harvestor, where she continued to inspire crowds. On March 7, 1942 at the age of 90, Lucy died from a fire that engulfed her home.
Her lover George Markstall died the next day from wounds he received while trying to save her. To add to this tragedy, when Lucy Parsons died, the police seized and destroyed her letters, writings and library. She almost disappeared from history, but, many of her writings did survive.
Lucy’s library of 1,500 books on sex, socialism and anarchy were mysteriously stolen, along with all of her personal papers. Neither the FBI nor the Chicago police told Irving Abrams, who had come to rescue the library, that the FBI had already confiscated all of her books. The struggle for fundamental freedom of speech, in which Lucy had engaged throughout her life, continued through her death as authorities still tried to silence this radical woman by robbing her of the work of her lifetime.
She is buried near her husband, near the Haymarket Monument.
On July 16, 2007, a book that purportedly belonged to Lucy Parsons was featured on a segment of the PBS television show, History Detectives. During the segment it was determined that the book, which was a biography of Albert Parson’s life and trial, was most likely a copy published and sold by Parsons as a way to raise money to prevent her husband’s execution. The segment also provided background on Parson’s life and the Haymarket Riot.
Lucy Parsons has been practically written out of history in the teachings of the labor movement. Being black, a woman, and working class has not only meant that she was excluded from history but also that she was not trusted to speak for herself by those who have included her, those who have added their own biases in supposedly telling her story. And her being an anarchist did not cause traditional authors (most of them Marxists) nor liberal scholars who prefer the likes of the Emma Goldmans’ of the labor movement, women with an uncomplicated identity (white) whose analysis more closely mirrors that of the New Left, to wholeheartedly embrace her strong ideas.
But, I will let Lucy speak for herself, for it is in her writings that she comes alive and lives on if only so many more people would learn of the tremendous impact she had on the working class, the poor, the black Americans only a few years out of slavery, and the immigrants newly arrived into a territory where they sought with native Americans to forge a brave new world free of discrimination from the brutality of class/race/gender discrimination.
“THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE WILL BE HEARD”
Words and writings by Lucy Parsons
The twentieth anniversary of the 11th of November, which has just been observed in Chicago, was a great success from many standpoints, notably among which was the increased number of young people who took part in it. . . .
As these years speed by, our comrades’ lives will be better understood; their great work for the uplifting of humanity understood and appreciated. This has been the case of the martyrs of all ages….
“The Voice of the People” will yet be heard.
November 20, 1907
It is now 18 months since I published the [Famous Speeches of the Haymarket Martyrs]. In that time I have traveled from Los Angeles, Wa Vancouver, B.C., to New York city, twice. I have devoted my entire energies to visiting Locals of the AF of L. From those Locals I have received most courteous treatment everywhere. I have credentials from some of the best known central bodies in this country, including the Central Federated Union of New York city. I am continually rapping at the doors of Locals, being admitted and selling the speeches. The result is that I have sold 10,000 copies and am just going to place my order with the printer for the sixth edition, making 12,000.
I regard these speeches as the greatest piece of propaganda literature extant; and when circulated among organized labor are bound to bear fruit.
December, 15, 1911
The Haymarket meeting is referred to historically as “The Haymarket Anarchists’ Riot.” There was no riot at the Haymarket except a police riot. Mayor Harrison attended the Haymarket meeting, and took the stand at the anarchist trial for the defense, not for the state.
The great strike of May 1886 was an historical event of great importance, inasmuch as it was . . . the first time that the workers themselves had attempted to get a shorter workday by united, simultaneous action…. This strike was the first in the nature of Direct Action on a large scale. . . .
Of course the eight-hour day is as antiquated as the craft unions themselves. Today we should be agitating for a five-hour workday.
The Industrial Worker
May 1, 1912
The Eleventh of November has become a day of international importance, cherished in the hearts of all true lovers of Liberty as a day of martyrdom. On that day was offered to the gallows-tree martyrs as true to their ideal as ever were sacrificed in any age….
Our comrades were not murdered by the state because they had any connection with the bombthrowing, but because they were active in organizing the wage-slaves. The capitalist class didn’t want to find the bombthrower; this class foolishly believed that by putting to death the active spirits of the labor movement of the time, it could frighten the working class back to slavery.
November 1, 1912
Parsons, Spies, Lingg, Fischer and Engel: Although all that is mortal of you is laid beneath that beautiful monument in Waldheim Cemetery, you are not dead. You are just beginning to live in the hearts of all true lovers of liberty. For now, after forty years that you are gone, thousands who were then unborn are eager to learn of your lives and heroic martyrdom, and as the years lengthen the brighter will shine your names, and the more you will come to be appreciated and loved.
Those who so foully murdered you, under the forms of law – lynch law – in a court of supposed justice, are forgotten.
Rest, comrades, rest. All the tomorrows are yours!
The Labor Defender
Once again on November 11 a memorial meeting will be held to commemorate the death of the Chicago Haymarket martyrs. 1937 is the fiftieth anniversary, and this meeting bids fair to be more widely observed than any of the forty-nine previous ones. . . .
On that gloomy morning of November 11, 1887, I took our two little children to jail to bid my beloved husband farewell. I found the jail roped off with heavy cables. Policemen with pistols walked in the inclosure.
I asked them to allow us to go to our loved one before they murdered him. They said nothing.
Then I said, “Let these children bid their father good-bye; let them receive his blessing. They can do no harm.”
In a few minutes a patrol-wagon drove up and we were locked up in a police station while the hellish deed was done.
Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.
The One Big Union Monthly
Roediger, Dave, and Franklin Rosemont, eds. Haymarket Scrapbook. Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., Chicago, 1986.
“TO TRAMPS, THE UNEMPLOYED, THE DISINHERITED, AND THE MISERABLE”
by Lucy E. Parsons
Alarm, October 4, 1884. Also printed and distributed as a leaflet by the International Working People’s Association.
The Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable.
A word to the 35,000 now tramping the streets of this great city, with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part, not sufficient even to purchase yourself a bit of food with which to appease the pangs of hunger now knawing at your vitals. It is with you and the hundreds of thousands of others similarly situated in this great land of plenty, that I wish to have a word.
Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? Have you not toiled long, hard and laboriously in producing wealth? And in all those years of drudgery do you not know you have produced thousand upon thousands of dollars’ worth of wealth, which you did not then, do not now, and unless you ACT, never will, own any part in? Do you not know that when you were harnessed to a machine and that machine harnessed to steam, and thus you toiled your 10, 12 and 16 hours in the 24, that during this time in all these years you received only enough of your labor product to furnish yourself the bare, coarse necessaries of life, and that when you wished to purchase anything for yourself and family it always had to be of the cheapest quality? If you wanted to go anywhere you had to wait until Sunday, so little did you receive for your unremitting toil that you dare not stop for a moment, as it were? And do you not know that with all your squeezing, pinching and economizing you never were enabled to keep but a few days ahead of the wolves of want? And that at last when the caprice of your employer saw fit to create an artificial famine by limiting production, that the fires in the furnace were extinguished, the iron horse to which you had been harnessed was stilled; the factory door locked up, you turned upon the highway a tramp, with hunger in your stomach and rags upon your back?
Yet your employer told you that it was overproduction which made him close up. Who cared for the bitter tears and heart-pangs of your loving wife and helpless children, when you bid them a loving “God bless you” and turned upon the tramper’s road to seek employment elsewhere? I say, who cared for those heartaches and pains? You were only a tramp now, to be execrated and denounced as a “worthless tramp and a vagrant” by that very class who had been engaged all those years in robbing you and yours. Then can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatever? that you are the common prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the “boss” which must be changed?
Now, when all these bright summer and autumn days are going by and you have no employment, and consequently can save up nothing, and when the winter’s blast sweeps down from the north and all the earth is wrapped in a shroud of ice, hearken not to the voice of the hyprocrite who will tell you that it was ordained of God that “the poor ye have always”; or to the arrogant robber who will say to you that you “drank up all your wages last summer when you had work, and that is the reason why you have nothing now, and the workhouse or the workyard is too good for you; that you ought to be shot.” And shoot you they will if you present your petitions in too emphatic a manner. So hearken not to them, but list! Next winter when the cold blasts are creeping through the rents in your seedy garments, when the frost is biting your feet through the holes in your worn-out shoes, and when all wretchedness seems to have centered in and upon you, when misery has marked you for her own and life has become a burden and existence a mockery, when you have walked the streets by day and slept upon hard boards by night, and at last determine by your own hand to take your life, – for you would rather go out into utter nothingness than to longer endure an existence which has become such a burden – so, perchance, you determine to dash yourself into the cold embrace of the lake rather than longer suffer thus. But halt, before you commit this last tragic act in the drama of your simple existence. Stop! Is there nothing you can do to insure those whom you are about to orphan, against a like fate? The waves will only dash over you in mockery of your rash act; but stroll you down the avenues of the rich and look through the magnificent plate windows into their voluptuous homes, and here you will discover the very identical robbers who have despoiled you and yours. Then let your tragedy be enacted here! Awaken them from their wanton sport at your expense! Send forth your petition and let them read it by the red glare of destruction. Thus when you cast “one long lingering look behind” you can be assured that you have spoken to these robbers in the only language which they have ever been able to understand, for they have never yet deigned to notice any petition from their slaves that they were not compelled to read by the red glare bursting from the cannon’s mouths, or that was not handed to them upon the point of the sword. You need no organization when you make up your mind to present this kind of petition. In fact, an organization would be a detriment to you; but each of you hungry tramps who read these lines, avail yourselves of those little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land.
Learn the use of explosives!
Dedicated to the tramps by Lucy E. Parsons.
“SPEECH TO THE IWW IN 1905,
by Lucy Parsons
Lucy Parsons addressed the founding convention on two occasions and her speeches touched on issues close to her heart: the oppression of women and how to develop radical new tactics to win strikes. Her idea clearly were in advance of the time, presage the “sit-in” strikes of the 1930s, the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and her words resonate today. Delegate applause interrupted her speech several times and at the end.
We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it, and the only way that we can be represented is to take a man to represent us. You men have made such a mess of it in representing us that we have not much confidence in asking you . . .We [women] are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men. Whenever wages are to be reduced the capitalist class use women to reduce them, and if there is anything that you men should do in the future it is to organize the women. . . .Now, what do we mean when we say revolutionary Socialist?We mean that the land shall belong to the landless, the tools to the toiler, and the products to the producers. . . . I believe that if every man and every woman who works, or who toils in the mines, mills, the workshops, the fields, the factories and the farms of our broad America should decide in their minds that they shall have that which of right belongs to them, and that no idler shall live upon their toil . . . then there is no army that is large enough to overcome you, for you yourselves constitute the army . . . .My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out an starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. . . .. . . . Let us sink such differences as nationality, religion, politics, and set our eyes eternally and forever toward the rising star of the industrial republic of labor; remembering that we have left the old behind and have set our faces toward the future. There is no power on earth that can stop men and women who are determined to be free at all hazards. There is no power on earth so great as the power of intellect. It moves the world and it moves the earth. . . .I hope even now to live to see the day when the first dawn of the new era of labor will have arisen, when capitalism will be a thing of the past, and the new industrial republic, the commonwealth of labor, shall be in operation.I thank you.
[Speech is found in the official Minutes of the 1905 IWW Convention in Chicago from a copy found at the Tamiment Library of New York University’s Bobst’s Library, and is slightly edited for clarity]
Copyright 2004 by William Loren Katz [williamlkatz.com]
I devote page 296 to her in my THE BLACK WEST [Touchstone, 1996]
“THE PRINCIPLES OF ANARCHISM”
by Lucy E. Parsons
A Lecture by Lucy Parsons
Comrades and Friends:
I think I cannot open my address more appropriately than by stating my experience in my long connection with the reform movement.
It was during the great railroad strike of 1877 that I first became interested in what is known as the “Labor Question.” I then thought as many thousands of earnest, sincere people think, that the aggregate power, operating in human society, known as government, could be made an instrument in the hands of the oppressed to alleviate their sufferings. But a closer study of the origin, history and tendency of governments, convinced me that this was a mistake; I came to understand how organized governments used their concentrated power to retard progress by their ever-ready means of silencing the voice of discontent if raised in vigorous protest against the machinations of the scheming few, who always did, always will and always must rule in the councils of nations where majority rule is recognized as the only means of adjusting the affairs of the people. I came to understand that such concentrated power can be always wielded in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. Government in its last analysis is this power reduced to a science. Governments never lead; they follow progress. When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.
I will state this contention in another way: I learned by close study that it made no difference what fair promises a political party, out of power might make to the people in order to secure their confidence, when once securely established in control of the affairs of society that they were after all but human with all the human attributes of the politician. Among these are: First, to remain in power at all hazards; if not individually, then those holding essentially the same views as the administration must be kept in control. Second, in order to keep in power, it is necessary to build up a powerful machine; one strong enough to crush all opposition and silence all vigorous murmurs of discontent, or the party machine might be smashed and the party thereby lose control.
When I came to realize the faults, failings, shortcomings, aspirations and ambitions of fallible man, I concluded that it would not be the safest nor best policy for society, as a whole, to entrust the management of all its affairs, with all their manifold deviations and ramifications in the hands of finite man, to be managed by the party which happened to come into power, and therefore was the majority party, nor did it ten, nor does it now make one particle of difference to me what a party, out of power may promise; it does not tend to allay my fears of a party, when entrenched and securely seated in power might do to crush opposition, and silence the voice of the minority, and thus retard the onward step of progress.
My mind is appalled at the thought of a political party having control of all the details that go to make up the sum total of our lives. Think of it for an instant, that the party in power shall have all authority to dictate the kind of books that shall be used in our schools and universities, government officials editing, printing, and circulating our literature, histories, magazines and press, to say nothing of the thousand and one activities of life that a people engage in, in a civilized society.
To my mind, the struggle for liberty is too great and the few steps we have gained have been won at too great a sacrifice, for the great mass of the people of this 20th century to consent to turn over to any political party the management of our social and industrial affairs. For all who are at all familiar with history know that men will abuse power when they possess it, for these and other reasons, I, after careful study, and not through sentiment, turned from a sincere, earnest, political Socialist to the non-political phase of Socialism, Anarchism, because in its philosophy I believe I can find the proper conditions for the fullest development of the individual units in society, which can never be the case under government restrictions.
The philosophy of anarchism is included in the word “Liberty”; yet it is comprehensive enough to include all things else that are conducive to progress. No barriers whatever to human progression, to thought, or investigation are placed by anarchism; nothing is considered so true or so certain, that future discoveries may not prove it false; therefore, it has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, “Freedom.” Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully. Other schools of thought are composed of crystallized ideas-principles that are caught and impaled between the planks of long platforms, and considered too sacred to be disturbed by a close investigation. In all other “issues” there is always a limit; some imaginary boundary line beyond which the searching mind dare not penetrate, lest some pet idea melt into a myth. But anarchism is the usher of science-the master of ceremonies to all forms of truth. It would remove all barriers between the human being and natural development. From the natural resources of the earth, all artificial restrictions, that the body might be nurtures, and from universal truth, all bars of prejudice and superstition, that the mind may develop symmetrically.
Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.
We look away from government for relief, because we know that force (legalized) invades the personal liberty of man, seizes upon the natural elements and intervenes between man and natural laws; from this exercise of force through governments flows nearly all the misery, poverty, crime and confusion existing in society.
So, we perceive, there are actual, material barriers blockading the way. These must be removed. If we could hope they would melt away, or be voted or prayed into nothingness, we would be content to wait and vote and pray. But they are like great frowning rocks towering between us and a land of freedom, while the dark chasms of a hard-fought past yawn behind us. Crumbling they may be with their own weight and the decay of time, but to quietly stand under until they fall is to be buried in the crash. There is something to be done in a case like this-the rocks must be removed. Passivity while slavery is stealing over us is a crime. For the moment we must forget that was are anarchists-when the work is accomplished we may forget that we were revolutionists-hence most anarchists believe the coming change can only come through a revolution, because the possessing class will not allow a peaceful change to take place; still we are willing to work for peace at any price, except at the price of liberty.
And what of the glowing beyond that is so bright that those who grind the faces of the poor say it is a dream? It is no dream, it is the real, stripped of brain-distortions materialized into thrones and scaffolds, mitres and guns. It is nature acting on her own interior laws as in all her other associations. It is a return to first principles; for were not the land, the water, the light, all free before governments took shape and form? In this free state we will again forget to think of these things as “property.” It is real, for we, as a race, are growing up to it. The idea of less restriction and more liberty, and a confiding trust that nature is equal to her work, is permeating all modern thought. From the dark year-not so long gone by-when it was generally believed that man’s soul was totally depraved and every human impulse bad; when every action, every thought and every emotion was controlled and restricted; when the human frame, diseased, was bled, dosed, suffocated and kept as far from nature’s remedies as possible; when the mind was seized upon and distorted before it had time to evolve a natural thought-from those days to these years the progress of this idea has been swift and steady. It is becoming more and more apparent that in every way we are “governed best where we are governed least.”
Still unsatisfied perhaps, the inquirer seeks for details, for ways and means, and whys and werefores. How ill we go on like human beings eating and sleeping, working and loving, exchanging and dealing, without government? So used have we become to “organized authority” in every department of life that ordinarily we cannot conceive of the most common-place avocations being carried on without their interference and “protection.” But anarchism is not compelled to outline a complete organization of a free society. To do so with any assumption of authority would be to place another barrier in the way of coming generations. The best thought of today may become the useless vagary of tomorrow, and to crystallize it into a creed is to make it unwieldy.
We judge from experience that man is a gregarious animal, and instinctively affiliates with his kind co-operates, unites in groups, works to better advantage, combined with his fellow men than when alone. This would point to the formation of co-operative communities, of which our present trades-unions are embryonic patterns. Each branch of industry will no doubt have its own organization, regulations, leaders, etc.; it will institute methods of direct communications with every member of that industrial branch in the world, and establish equitable relations with all other branches. There would probably be conventions of industry which delegates would attend, and where they would transact such business as was necessary, adjourn and from that moment be delegates no longer, but simply members of a group. To remain permanent members of a continuous congress would be to establish a power that is certain soon or later to be abused.
No great, central power, like a congress consisting of men who know nothing of their constituents’ trades, interests, rights or duties, would be over the various organizations or groups; nor would they employ sheriffs, policemen, courts or jailers to enforce the conclusions arrived at while in session. The members of groups might profit by the knowledge gained through mutual interchange of thought afforded by conventions if they choose, but they will not be compelled to do so by any outside force.
Vested rights, privileges, charters, title deeds, upheld by all the paraphernalia of government-the visible symbol of power-such as prison, scaffold and armies will have no existence. There can be no privileges bought or sold, and the transaction kept sacred at the point of the bayonet. Every man will stand on an equal footing with his brother in the race of life, and neither chains of economic thralldom nor metal drags of superstition shall handicap the one to the advantage of the other.
Property will lose a certain attribute which sanctifies it now. The absolute ownership of it-“the right to use or abuse”-will be abolished, and possession, use, will be the only title. It will be seen how impossible it would be for one person to “own” a million acres of land, without a title deed, backed by a government ready to protect the title at all hazards, even to the loss of thousands of lives. He could not use the million acres himself, nor could he wrest from its depths the possible resources it contains.
People have become so used to seeing the evidences of authority on every hand that most of them honestly believe that they would go utterly to the bad if it were not for the policeman’s club or the soldier’s bayonet. But the anarchist says, “Remove these evidence of brute force, and let man feel the revivifying influences of self responsibility and self control, and see how we will respond to these better influences.”
The belief in a literal place of torment has nearly melted away; and instead of the direful results predicted, we have a higher and truer standard of manhood and womanhood. People do not care to go to the bad when they find they can as well as not. Individuals are unconscious of their own motives in doing good. While acting out their natures according to their surroundings and conditions, they still believe they are being kept in the right path by some outside power, some restraint thrown around them by church or state. So the objector believes that with the right to rebel and secede, sacred to him, he would forever be rebelling and seceding, thereby creating constant confusion and turmoil. Is it probable that he would, merely for the reason that he could do so? Men are to a great extent creatures of habit, and grow to love associations; under reasonably good conditions, he would remain where he commences, if he wished to, and, if he did not, who has any natural right to force him into relations distasteful to him? Under the present order of affairs, persons do unite with societies and remain good, disinterested members for life, where the right to retire is always conceded.
What we anarchists contend for is a larger opportunity to develop the units in society, that mankind may possess the right as a sound being to develop that which is broadest, noblest, highest and best, unhandicapped by any centralized authority, where he shall have to wait for his permits to be signed, sealed, approved and handed down to him before he can engage in the active pursuits of life with his fellow being. We know that after all, as we grow more enlightened under this larger liberty, we will grow to care less and less for that exact distribution of material wealth, which, in our greed-nurtured senses, seems now so impossible to think upon carelessly. The man and woman of loftier intellects, in the present, think not so much of the riches to be gained by their efforts as of the good they can do for their fellow creatures. There is an innate spring of healthy action in every human being who has not been crushed and pinched by poverty and drudgery from before his birth, that impels him onward and upward. He cannot be idle, if he would; it is as natural for him to develop, expand, and use the powers within him when no repressed, as it is for the rose to bloom in the sunlight and fling its fragrance on the passing breeze.
The grandest works of the past were never performed for the sake of money. Who can measure the worth of a Shakespeare, an Angelo or Beethoven in dollars and cents? Agassiz said, “he had no time to make money,” there were higher and better objects in life than that. And so will it be when humanity is once relieved from the pressing fear of starvation, want, and slavery, it will be concerned, less and less, about the ownership of vast accumulations of wealth. Such possessions would be but an annoyance and trouble. When two or three or four hours a day of easy, of healthful labor will produce all the comforts and luxuries one can use, and the opportunity to labor is never denied, people will become indifferent as to who owns the wealth they do not need. Wealth will be below par, and it will be found that men and women will not accept it for pay, or be bribed by it to do what they would not willingly and naturally do without it. Some higher incentive must, and will, supersede the greed for gold. The involuntary aspiration born in man to make the most of one’s self, to be loved and appreciated by one’s fellow-beings, to “make the world better for having lived in it,” will urge him on the nobler deeds than ever the sordid and selfish incentive of material gain has done.
If, in the present chaotic and shameful struggle for existence, when organized society offers a premium on greed, cruelty, and deceit, men can be found who stand aloof and almost alone in their determination to work for good rather than gold, who suffer want and persecution rather than desert principle, who can bravely walk to the scaffold for the good they can do humanity, what may we expect from men when freed from the grinding necessity of selling the better part of themselves for bread? The terrible conditions under which labor is performed, the awful alternative if one does not prostitute talent and morals in the service of mammon; and the power acquired with the wealth obtained by ever so unjust means, combined to make the conception of free and voluntary labor almost an impossible one. And yet, there are examples of this principle even now. In a well bred family each person has certain duties, which are performed cheerfully, and are not measured out and paid for according to some pre-determined standard; when the united members sit down to the well-filled table, the stronger do not scramble to get the most, while the weakest do without, or gather greedily around them more food than they can possibly consume. Each patiently and politely awaits his turn to be served, and leaves what he does not want; he is certain that when again hungry plenty of good food will be provided. This principle can be extended to include all society, when people are civilized enough to wish it.
Again, the utter impossibility of awarding to each and exact return for the amount of labor performed will render absolute communism a necessity sooner or later. The land and all it contains, without which labor cannot be exerted, belong to no one man, but to all alike. The inventions and discoveries of the past are the common inheritance of the coming generations; and when a man takes the tree that nature furnished free, and fashions it into a useful article, or a machine perfected and bequeathed to him by many past generations, who is to determine what proportion is his and his alone? Primitive man would have been a week fashioning a rude resemblance to the article with his clumsy tools, where the modern worker has occupied an hour. The finished article is of far more real value than the rude one made long ago, and yet the primitive man toiled the longest and hardest. Who can determine with exact justice what is each one’s due? There must come a time when we will cease trying. The earth is so bountiful, so generous; man’s brain is so active, his hands so restless, that wealth will spring like magic, ready for the use of the world’s inhabitants. We will become as much ashamed to quarrel over its possession as we are now to squabble over the food spread before us on a loaded table. “But all this,” the objector urges, “is very beautiful in the far off future, when we become angels. It would not do now to abolish governments and legal restraints; people are not prepared for it.”
This is a question. We have seen, in reading history, that wherever an old-time restriction has been removed the people have not abused their newer liberty. Once it was considered necessary to compel men to save their souls, with the aid of governmental scaffolds, church racks and stakes. Until the foundation of the American republic it was considered absolutely essential that governments should second the efforts of the church in forcing people to attend the means of grace; and yet it is found that the standard of morals among the masses is raised since they are left free to pray as they see fit, or not at all, if they prefer it. It was believed the chattel slaves would not work if the overseer and whip were removed; they are so much more a source of profit now that ex-slave owners would not return to the old system if they could.
So many able writers have shown that the unjust institutions which work so much misery and suffering to the masses have their root in governments, and owe their whole existence to the power derived from government we cannot help but believe that were every law, every title deed, every court, and every police officer or soldier abolished tomorrow with one sweep, we would be better off than now. The actual, material things that man needs would still exist; his strength and skill would remain and his instinctive social inclinations retain their force and the resources of life made free to all the people that they would need no force but that of society and the opinion of fellow beings to keep them moral and upright.
Freed from the systems that made him wretched before, he is not likely to make himself more wretched for lack of them. Much more is contained in the thought that conditions make man what he is, and not the laws and penalties made for his guidance, than is supposed by careless observation. We have laws, jails, courts, armies, guns and armories enough to make saints of us all, if they were the true preventives of crime; but we know they do not prevent crime; that wickedness and depravity exist in spite of them, nay, increase as the struggle between classes grows fiercer, wealth greater and more powerful and poverty more gaunt and desperate.
To the governing class the anarchists say: “Gentlemen, we ask no privilege, we propose no restriction; nor, on the other hand, will we permit it. We have no new shackles to propose, we seek emancipation from shackles. We ask no legislative sanction, for co-operation asks only for a free field and no favors; neither will we permit their interference.(“?) It asserts that in freedom of the social unit lies the freedom of the social state. It asserts that in freedom to possess and utilize soil lie social happiness and progress and the death of rent. It asserts that order can only exist where liberty prevails, and that progress leads and never follows order. It asserts, finally, that this emancipation will inaugurate liberty, equality, fraternity. That the existing industrial system has outgrown its usefulness, if it ever had any is I believe admitted by all who have given serious thought to this phase of social conditions.
The manifestations of discontent now looming upon every side show that society is conducted on wrong principles and that something has got to be done soon or the wage class will sink into a slavery worse than was the feudal serf. I say to the wage class: Think clearly and act quickly, or you are lost. Strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you earn, be content with nothing less.
Following are definitions which will appear in all of the new standard Dictionaries:
Anarchism-The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man made law, the theory that all forms of government are based on violence-hence wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary.
Anarchy-Absence of government; disbelief in and disregard of invasion and authority based on coercion and force; a condition of society regulated by voluntary agreement instead of government.
Anarchist-No. 1. A believer in Anarchism; one opposed to all forms of coercive government and invasive authority. 2. One who advocates Anarchy, or absence of government, as the ideal of political liberty and social harmony.
Selected Lucy Parsons Quotations:
• Let us sink such differences as nationality, religion, politics, and set our eyes eternally and forever toward the rising star of the industrial republic of labor.
• The involuntary aspiration born in man to make the most of one’s self, to be loved and appreciated by one’s fellow-beings, to “make the world better for having lived in it,” will urge him on the nobler deeds than ever the sordid and selfish incentive of material gain has done.
• There is an innate spring of healthy action in every human being who has not been crushed and pinched by poverty and drudgery from before his birth, that impels him onward and upward.
• We are the slaves of slaves.
We are exploited more ruthlessly than men.
• Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto, “Freedom.” Freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.
• Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals.
• Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.
• Strike not for a few cents more an hour, because the price of living will be raised faster still, but strike for all you earn, be content with nothing less.
• Concentrated power can be always wielded in the interest of the few and at the expense of the many. Government in its last analysis is this power reduced to a science. Governments never lead; they follow progress. When the prison, stake or scaffold can no longer silence the voice of the protesting minority, progress moves on a step, but not until then.
• Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or knife on the steps of the palace of the rich and stab or shoot their owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination and without pity
• You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you.
• If, in the present chaotic and shameful struggle for existence, when organized society offers a premium on greed, cruelty, and deceit, men can be found who stand aloof and almost alone in their determination to work for good rather than gold, who suffer want and persecution rather than desert principle, who can bravely walk to the scaffold for the good they can do humanity, what may we expect from men when freed from the grinding necessity of selling the better part of themselves for bread?
• So many able writers have shown that the unjust institutions which work so much misery and suffering to the masses have their root in governments, and owe their whole existence to the power derived from government we cannot help but believe that were every law, every title deed, every court, and every police officer or soldier abolished tomorrow with one sweep, we would be better off than now.
• Oh, Misery, I have drunk thy cup of sorrow to its dregs, but I am still a rebel.
“Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality and Solidarity: Writings and Speeches, 1878-1937”, Charles H.Kerr, 2004.
“Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America”, by James Green. Pantheon Books, March 7, 2006.
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Thank you for this post! What an amazing historical figure.
This is wonderfully written! I came over via BFP. As a “crazy femmie commie”, I’ve been a fan of Lucy Parsons for years. This would make a great educational pamphlet to pass out at labor events, etc.
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